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Finding closers is art, not science

by Tracy Ringolsby
July 2, 2004

DENVER--One thing is apparent.

Closers are created, not developed.

Braden Looper was a closer at Wichita State before the Cardinals made him a first-round pick in 1997, but he's a rarity. Heck, only six other closers-and that's counting the Diamondbacks' Matt Mantei, who is out for the season following his latest surgery-were converted into the relief roles even in the low minor leagues.

Mantei has started only 14 games in a career that began in 1991, and eight of those starts came his first two seasons. Armando Benitez (Marlins), Francisco Cordero (Rangers), Danny Graves (Reds), Trevor Hoffman (Padres) and Troy Percival (Angels) join Mantei as arms groomed mostly as closers.

Benitez pitched exclusively in relief from the start, making just seven starts in a career that began in 1990. Cordero moved into the bullpen for good in his fourth professional season, in the low Class A Midwest League.

Graves had started in just three of his first 447 pro appearances before former Reds manager Bob Boone's ill-fated effort to start him a year ago (5-14, 4.97 in 30 starts). He's back in the bullpen this year and reached 30 saves faster than any pitcher since the save became an official statistic in 1969.

Percival and Hoffman deserve a separate category because they're converted position players. Percival broke into pro ball as a catcher but went straight to the bullpen when he moved to the mound in 1991 in the short-season Northwest League. Hoffman was a shortstop who also went right into a relief role; he started just 11 times in 89 minor league appearances.

On the other hand there's Eric Gagne, who has become the game's most dominating closer but pitched in relief just twice in 87 minor league appearances, and 10 times in his first 58 big league appearances in Los Angeles. Braves righthander John Smoltz became a reliever to ease demands on his arm after surgery. His first 356 big league appearances were starts.

The list goes on.

Phillies closer Billy Wagner started 70 of 71 appearances in three-plus years in the minor leagues, but has been purely a reliever since making it to the big leagues.

The Yankees made the slow conversion with Mariano Rivera, and it worked well. He was a starter prior to 1996, and then went a set-up role for John Wetteland, which allowed him to make the adjustment to pitching in relief before he was asked to slam the door.

Seeking Closure

The Athletics bullpen woes began when the A's didn't re-sign closer Keith Foulke for financial reasons. The A's signed Arthur Rhodes as a free agent prior to the season but ended up paying additionally-giving up two prospects to acquire Octavio Dotel from the Astros in a recent trade. This year alone they are paying Rhodes ($1.8 million) and Dotel ($2.8 million) a combined $4.6 million while Foulke is getting $4.5 million in Boston.

The A's, however, did receive just less than $1 million along with Dotel in the trade, and Foulke has two more years on his contract, which guarantees him $15.75 million.

But the A's have $7.4 million guaranteed to Rhodes over the next two years, and the general feeling is Dotel will command at least $5 million in arbitration this winter. He is free-agent eligible after the 2005 season.

Still Searching

Washington, D.C., or northern Virginia are considered the likely spots for the Expos to end up. But don't rule out Las Vegas.

Commissioner Bud Selig won't rate the contenders (Portland, Ore.; Norfolk, Va.; and Monterrey, Mexico, remain under consideration as well) but Vegas keeps resurfacing whenever baseball execs start to narrow the choices.

Selig is a student of history, and history says Selig has concerns about the impact a team in the area will have on the Orioles. That's a concern that is much more tied to the overall health of the game than it is any threats from Baltimore owner Peter Angelos.

The biggest questions about Vegas deal with gambling. For years, that was a concern. In the 1960s, the Dodgers were forced to remove an ad for a Las Vegas casino from their program. During Bowie Kuhn's days as commissioner he banned Willie Mays from the game because he was being paid to shake hands with visitors to a casino.

Times, however, have changed. Gambling is now legal in 23 states. The Padres, for example, have sponsorship from a casino on an Indian reservation.

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